I recently finished a book titled: “Mastery” by Robert Greene. The book is one of those inspirational books which outlines the stories of many famous masters and how they gained mastery. Although the book was a bit cheesy at times, I still found it to be an uplifting read, filled with interesting anecdotes that definitely gives you a huge kick in the ass to go out and to “discover your life task.”
I want to share some of the lessons I’ve learned from the book– and how one can plan to use some of the author’s advice to gain mastery in street photography. Certainly following these steps won’t necessarily cause you to gain mastery, but I certainly think it is a great blueprint.
The author starts off the book how we lived for thousands of years as hunter-gatherers, wandering the earth. We craved for novelty and different experiences in our environment– which caused us to become learning machines. We would have an unquenchable thirst for exploring to find better shelter, sources of food, and opportunities for our families.
Fast-forward a few thousand years, and now we live in stable environments. We have routine jobs, habits, and environments which are static. Yet we still have that primal urge to go out and explore and learn.
Back then it was all about “survival of the fittest”
in which the physically strong (and mentally intelligent) were the ones who were able to spread their genes. So those of our ancestors who were able to learn voraciously about the environment ended up being able to pass their genes for millennia to come.
The author continues the point that our brains crave novelty and trying out new things. One of the things we hate most is boredom and feeling stagnant in our learning.
The problem is that now because our environments are so static and unstimulating we fall into depression and anxiety. Much research agrees with this hypothesis, as we now spend more and more time glued in front of screens whether it be on the chairs at work, at our couches at home, or even while in bed.
What is genius?
One of the things I found fascinating is that in the past, being a “genius” wasn’t something that you could achieve on your own. Rather, it was a part of divine intervention.
For example, in Latin the word “genius” refers to a mystical ghost that watched over you.
But now we know from breakthroughs in neuroscience that our brains are quite plastic– that they can be molded like play-dough and change with training and learning.
However at the end of the introduction, the author has a powerful call-to-action in which we shouldn’t care about our upbringing in society nor our genes. Rather, we should realize that we can dictate our own futures from our own efforts. He states eloquently: “We must create our own world or die from inaction.”
To end this section is an inspiration quote by Nietzsche, in which to gain mastery in any field requires hard work and grit.
“In truth, the good artists or thinkers imagination is continually producing things good, mediocre, and bad, but his power of judgment, highly sharpened and practiced, rejects, selects, joins together… All great men were great workers, untiring not only in invention but also in rejecting, sifting, reforming, arranging.
Do not talk about giftedness, inborn talents! One can name great men of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became geniuses through qualities which no one who knew what they were would boast of: they all possessed that seriousness of the efficient workman which first learns to construct the parts properly before it ventures to fashion a great whole…
… their creations appear and fall from the tree on a quiet autumn evening unprecipitately, in due time, not quickly pushed aside by something new. The wish to create incessantly is vulgar, betraying jealousy, envy, and ambition. If one is something, one does not actually need to do anything—and nevertheless does a great deal. There is a type higher than the “productive” man.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human, 1878)
So remember when you are trying to find genius and mastery in street photography, it is less about your inborn talents and more about the hard work you put out.
Finding your muse
One of the first chapters in “Mastery” discusses finding your muse. If you are reading this post, you are most likely interested in street photography. So feel free to skip this section. However I still found it fascinating to read this chapter in “Mastery” as it confirmed some of the reasons why I enjoy street photography so much (and why I am not as interested in other forms of photography).
When it comes to finding your muse, the author says that it is important to follow what interests you. He makes the case that we should avoid social pressure to conform to what is a “noble” type of profession to follow and that our work should be our vocation.
Interesting enough, the word “vocation” in Latin means “to call or to be summoned.” Therefore we should think less of our vocation as our day jobs, but rather our “life’s purpose” or “life’s task.”
Certainly creating this work/vocation balance is quite difficult– especially in today’s age in which many of us have to hold down 9-5, 40 hour week jobs to support ourselves and our families. However regardless of what our day job is, we still have the opportunity to pursue our muse (in this case, street photography).
So how do we find our inspiration? We shouldn’t see inspiration as something that only selects a few. Rather, it is something that we all have– something in our biology that keeps us alive.
In Latin, “inspiration” refers to something from outside of us, breathing into us. Without inspiration, we would literally die (our brains can last for less than 5 minutes without oxygen). We can even say that we will figuratively die without pursuing our passions in life.
A Greek poet named Pindar emphasizes the importance of becoming who we are meant to be through learning:
“Become who you are by learning who you are.” – Pindar
To find our passion in life, the author outlines four steps:
- Occupy the perfect niche (street photography is quite niche)
- Avoid the false path (ignoring prestige or money– not pursuing street photography for the money or fame)
- Let go of the past (don’t let baggage from the past hold you down– just because you shot mostly landscape in the past doesn’t mean you can’t shoot street photography now).
- Persevere (to make a great street photography is tough work — we need to devote tons of time and effort; 10,000 hours should do the trick)
The author gives the reader the inspirational phrase that our interest should “border on the religious” to confirm whether we are truly passionate about something.
A 3-step outline to achieving mastery:
So what are the necessary steps to gain mastery? The author outlines the following 3 levels/phases:
Moving forward, I will outline each level/phase and say how we can apply it to ourselves as street photographers.
1. Apprenticeship (skills acquisition phase)
The author states that when we start our journey to gaining mastery– we need to start off in an “apprenticeship” phase. Generally apprenticeships last for around 5-10 years in which no significant breakthroughs are made. Rather, we should consider this phase as if we were a small plant– absorbing the nutrients from the soil to build a solid foundation. And this soil should be rich with mentors, books, and information.
Some things which are quite important to note in the apprenticeship phase: to choose opportunities with the best potential for learning, to constantly push yourself out of your comfort zone, and to also measure your progress along the way.
Below are also some steps that the author outlines the apprenticeship phase:
The author talks about “tacit knowledge”
which is knowledge which is hard to put into words. Rather, it is something in which we learn from experience. This can be knowing how to properly judge exposure, how to effectively focus your camera, and generally knowing how to take a photograph.
Back in the middle-ages, most people seeking a profession would need to put in at least 7 years of study under a master. Usually starting from anywhere from age 12-17, you would decide what you wanted to study and choose your master.
Mind that during this time, this was the only real way to learn any craft– as they didn’t have access to the abundant form of knowledge that we do now (think about books and the internet). Then, very few books were in circulation (as they were too expensive to produce). Therefore many apprentices had to learn from following and imitating their masters.
The author brings up the concept of “mirror neurons” in which humans evolved to learn by copying others. Language through oral and written form is a recent invention
in the past we had to learn everything by hand. It is kind of like learning how to ride a bike, it is hard to learn from just books.
To truly learn how to ride a bike, you just need to jump on a bike. The same goes with photography, the best way to learn how to take photos is from practice and experimentation (not instructional books).
So how much time is required to gain the basic skills of a certain craft, in our case– photography? Well, Malcom Gladwell mentions the “10,000 hour rule” in his book “Outliers.” The concept is that most masters have devoted at least 10,000 hours to their craft (art, programming, music) before they had the necessary skills to go off and create masterpieces.
Gladwell told how Bill Gates programmed for 10,000 hours before starting Microsoft, how The Beatles played together for 10,000 hours playing cover albums before starting to find their own voice, and even for cello player Yo-Yo Ma to practice before becoming a world-class player.
How long is 10,000 hours? Well, assuming with sustained daily practice, you guessed it, around 7-10 years.
So when we start off in photography learning the basics– we need to value these 8 things that the author outlines during our apprenticeship:
- Value learning over money
- Taking photography classes which teach you how to make a good photograph, rather than how to make money out of it. Or taking fine art photography classes instead of portrait-studio classes.
- Keep expanding your horizons
- Not becoming complacent and constantly striving to improve.
- Reverting to a feeling of inferiority
- Never thinking that you are ‘good’– rather seeing your shortcomings and staying humble. The second we start to get cocky is when we stop learning.
- Trust the process
- Don’t fear if you aren’t making as much progress as you would like. Rather, know that with sustained practice you will continue to get better in photography. Disregard feelings of boredom, panic, and frustration– as they are common in the ‘apprenticeship’ phase.
- Move toward resistance and pain
- Consider that when it comes to exercise, we only get stronger by increasing the tension and weight of our workouts. We should apply the same when it comes to our photography, don’t become complacent with our type of photography. Try to make your photos more complex in terms of composition and form, and don’t just shoot in your own comfort zone.
- Embrace failure
- Know that during the apprenticeship phase you will fail and make many horrible photographs. Don’t become discouraged. Rather, revel in your failures. Study your failures, learn how you can continue improving your photography based on what hasn’t worked in the past. Use your failures as information on how to get better.
- Understand form and function
- Realize that effective photographs aren’t just about looking pretty on the outside. Rather, we should strive to create photographs that have beautiful compositions but at the same time have a deeper story beneath it. To create stories that have strong form and content.
- Advancing through trial and error
- Don’t just try to follow the well-walked path–rather hack your own path. There is no one ‘right path’ for people in photography. Some will start off in landscape photography and end up enjoying street photography. Others start off in macro photography and somehow end up in street photography. Everyone’s path is different.
When we think about the apprenticeship phase, it is tough and arduous. When it comes to chopping down a large tree, we can’t expect to chop it down with a small axe in one big blow. Rather, we need to work at it– chopping for a long time, and getting to chopping it down, blow by blow.
The author talks about the importance of having a mentor, as although books are great tools to learn– having a mentor give you better feedback and guidance (what a book cannot do).
So how can you find a mentor? Well, the author mentions the fact that you don’t necessarily need just one mentor. Sometimes having several mentors can be helpful. Also there are cases in which many people don’t have mentors can seek books as mentors (only when they are extremely tough and hard on ourselves).
When it comes to photography, you can find a mentor by attending a workshop, a talk, or even being part of an online community or forum. When it comes to finding a mentor, rather than just finding someone who gives us pats on the back– it is important to find someone who gives us “tough love.”
So someone who wants to see you succeed and improve in your photography, but will give you real critique and criticism that will help you become a better photographer.
Step 2. The “creative-active” phase (experimentation)
When one is finished with his or her apprenticeship and gets the fundamentals of a certain field down, he or she can then head to what the author refers to as the “creative-active phase.”
In this phase, it is less about learning the fundamentals of a craft and more about becoming increasingly bold, stepping outside of the box, and allowing your mind to make new associations with different fields of knowledge (to create creativity).
So applied to street photography– once you learned all of the work of the masters (Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, William Klein, Garry Winogrand, etc) and have a solid understanding of how to use your camera– you can begin to discover your own voice.
If you were determined enough to put in your apprenticeship phase of photography for 7-10 years, then the author encourages you to “continue to work at a deliriously creative pace” and to focus on creating art, rather than just consuming it.
So how do you know if you are pursing the right “creative task?” (street photography?) Consider this a checklist:
- Are you obsessed with it?
- Does it connect deep with you? Is it something you feel strongly about?
- Do you feel personally responsible to continue your craft?
- Do you have the work ethic to put in the hard work necessary to gain mastery?
- Are you emotionally attached to your work?
- Does it challenge you?
- Are you willing to let go of comfort and security, and become vulnerable?
If you answer to most of the things above as “yes”
street photography is most likely certainly you are very passionate about– a craft you are willing to put in the countless hours to perfect and pursue for the rest of your life.
The author also brings up the importance of creating what he calls the “dimensional mind.” A mind that has the playfulness of a child (willing to explore and try out new things) but at the same time the rigor and patience of stoic (being focused and not easily distracted).
So how does one gain a “dimensional mind”?
Once again, the author outlines some ideas:
1. Cultivate negative capability (keep our ego in check)
One of the most important things to keep your mind fluid and humble. For example, the quote that I strive to live by is what Socrates said: “I know nothing.” Mind you that Socrates was a supremely smart guy– but the fact that he stayed humble is how he was able to keep learning and not get stuck in terms of his creativity.
Once we close off our minds to the rest of the worlds and we think we know everything
we fail to incorporate new ways of thinking. We should know that we can always be wrong, and we should never become too fond or attached to our ideas. We should continue to look for other styles and fields outside of our craft to keep our eyes fresh.
To apply this to street photography, remind yourself: “there is not only one way to shoot street photography.” As time has progressed, many different forms of street photography has progressed.
Would you say that the styles of Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Klein, and Alex Webb are similar? Well on some fundamental regards, but they are all very different. Cartier-Bresson took on a more classical approach, incorporating more geometry and design into his work. Klein took to the streets of NYC and become part of the action with his 28mm lens. Webb embraced color and the light, and started to work in complex layers that nobody had ever really worked like.
So once again don’t get too attached to your style of street photography and way of working. Keep an open and fluid mind.
2. Allow for serendipity
One of the ways to become more creative and playful is to allow for serendipity.
Embrace knowledge from different fields. Not just photography, but from theater, paintings, movies, literature, and more. The things that we come upon serendipitously from outside sources are often the most interesting. The brain gets stimulated by a wide variety of knowledge. Consider creating what the author calls: a “knowledge cauldron” (imagine a witch tossing different forms of art in a pot and stirring it around in your brain).
Relax your mind. When you are shooting street photography, it is good to shoot with a rough idea or project in mind– but don’t let it become so rigid that you miss other opportunities. Have a loose mind, and rather than always chasing what is on the street– let the photography opportunities come to you. As Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
So instead of always running around the streets hunting for moments and interesting subjects, spend more time in one spot. Wait for people to come to you. Joel Meyerowitz did most of his NYC color work by standing at the intersection of sidewalks, embracing the subjects that came from both ways. Try to experiment doing the same.
Also anticipate moments. For example, if you happen to come upon a great background or scene– don’t just snap one photo and move on. Think about what kind of subject would be perfect to complete your composition in what part of the frame. If you are shooting in a park and the left and middle part of the frame are filled (but the far right empty)
consider to wait for something to happen on the far right. Sometimes it will happen, sometimes it won’t. But if you prepare for it and try to anticipate it– sometimes luck will swing in your favor.
3. Avoid boredom or complacency
As photographers and artists, we all fall into creative slumps every once in a while. Our work may bore us or no longer interest us. The places which we shoot may become stale.
Don’t fret– this has happened to every street photographer I know (myself included).
When you feel bored of shooting in the streets, don’t despair. Rather, take it as a sign that you have probably become good at the way of shooting that you are used to. Rather, your body and mind no longer find it novel– so you need to try something new to continue sparking your creativity.
Therefore, make creativity–not comfort your zone. Leonardo da Vinci called this “ostinate rigore” (obstinate rigor). The act of staying focused and not be rushed, and open to pushing your boundaries.
So if you ever find yourself in a creative slump, perhaps it is time to work on a new project. If you find yourself shooting mostly street portraits, take a step back and try to create images that incorporate more layers and formal composition to your work. If black and white is starting to bore you, try color for a change. If you are just tired of people all together, try shooting urban landscapes (like Lee Friedlander) or still life photos.
Lastly, remember that praise can be dangerous. Sure it is nice to have others give you a lot of “favorites” and “likes” on your photos
but the second you start eating up the praise of others, you no longer become self-critical. To continue pushing your borders, seek criticism. Don’t ask what people like in your photos, ask people the weak points in your photos.
You know what you like about a photo, but we are often blind to what doesn’t work in a photo. It may be a distracting background, a cut off leg or arm, or a lack of eye contact. It may be poor light, a boring scene, or something else.
4. Find your authentic voice
One of the biggest difficulties in any art is to find your own voice. In today’s age, there are more street photographers than ever. Thousands of photos are being uploaded a day– and lots of groundbreaking work has already been done. How do you stand out of the crowd?
The secret is to become an alchemist. John Coltrane (one of the most famous Jazz saxophone players in history) struggled for nearly a decade experimenting with different types of jazz to find his own voice. However over time, he built up a great library of sounds and styles of playing– and soon he cooked them all together and discovered his own voice.
When Coltrane unleashed his way of working to the world, people were taken back. They didn’t know how to comprehend his work. At first, they despised it (because it sounded so different and it was so unconventional). However over time, people started to refer to his way of playing as “Coltrane Changes” in which he would substitute chords over common jazz chord progressions in a novel way.
Therefore when it comes to our street photography, don’t feel pressured to find your voice by rushing it. These things take time. In Coltrane’s example, it took nearly 10 years of constant experimenting and playing. I think the same goes with photography, expect it to take nearly a decade for you to embrace enough ways of working, photography books, and inspirations until you find your unique voice.
Love the journey of getting better in street photography– rather than just the final result.
Step 3: The final step of Mastery (mixing the intuitive with the rational)
In the last section of the book, the author proposes that after Step 1 (Apprenticeship, or the “skills acquisition phase”), Step 2 (The “Creative-active” phase, or experimental stage), we can pursue the final step of mastery, Step 3, which is mixing the intuitive with the rational. Meaning, we embrue all the knowledge we have learned and become highly sensitized in trying out and incorporating new ways in creativity.
The author says that this transformation generally happens in the brain after 20,000 hours– when we have a vast understanding of a certain field and we can see new and novel ways to approach it (that a beginner simply couldn’t see).
Much of this mastery involves a mastery of speed. For example when you are shooting on the streets, your vision expands and you act quickly. You don’t become just tunnel-visioned, you widen your angle-of-view and see other street photography opportunities you might have not seen before. Not only that, but you have the mastery of your tool (the camera) to quickly and efficiently capture what you see.
In nature, all animals rely on speed and intuition to survive in nature. Therefore we have evolved elaborate instincts to speed this process up. Although we are no longer facing predators and life/death situations in modern life
we still have these genetically hardwired traits alive and active in us.
So what are the final points to note in the step of mastery? The author outlines:
1. Become “the universal man”
During the renaissance, there was the concept of “the universal man”
a person who was able to combine many different disciplines in a unique and novel way. This person didn’t only have a solid understanding of one field, but a wide grasp of knowledge across many different fields.
Once again, Leonardo da Vinci was the prototypical “renaissance man.” Not only did he master art, but he also mastered science, math, and many different fields– and used it to create inventions and masterpieces which were far before his time.
So when this comes to street photography, don’t just focus on being a great “street photographer.” Strive to become a great photographer, period. Sure you can call yourself a “street photographer” because it is an easy definition to differentiate yourself from fashion photographers. But try to embrace as many fields of photography and visual art, philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, and unrelated fields to have a wider and better understanding of the world.
2. Activate supreme focus
What separates the masters from those starting off is the ability to focus. This doesn’t just mean in photography, but every field out there. What differentiates a great writer and a newbie writer? The great writer wakes up everyday at 5am, drinks a strong coffee, doesn’t complain and goes straight to writing until 8am when he may have a day job. 3 hours of supreme focus can often get more writing done than 30 hours of distracted writing (tweeting, chatting, checking email).
When you are shooting on the streets, don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Although I love shooting with friends for fun– if you want to take really great photos you need to shoot by yourself. This is because others can often distract us, disrupt our photography opportunities, and cause us to lose focus.
I recommend when you are shooting on the streets and heading more towards a mastery level, shoot with a project, theme, or book in mind. Don’t just take random snapshots on the street. Have a bigger concept or idea, which will be unified through your photos over a long period of time (5-10 years). Don’t lose sight of your project, and don’t give up too quickly.
As Bruce Davidson said, most young photographers simply give up on their photography projects too quickly. If photographers stick with their projects long enough, their unique voice begins to shine through and their work stands on its own–and out from the crowd.
3. Internalize the details
What makes great art (and a great photograph) is the details. The small details make all the difference. When it comes to art, the greatest painters put in painstaking hours not only to the subjects– but to the backgrounds, painting each blade of grass and every ray of light.
When we shoot street photography, we often get too focused on our subjects and not enough in our backgrounds. This tends to be the fact that we often look for interesting subjects first, shoot, and then keep our fingers crossed and hope that the background is good. This is often a poor way of working, as it leaves us with messy backgrounds with poor details.
So what is the key to overcome this and focus more on details? Street photography is unpredictable. We generally have very little (to no) control of how our photos ultimately turn out. We can wait for the car to get out of the background in our photo, but sometimes it never happens.
Leonardo da Vinci gives us a tip: start with details then make the big picture! So in street photography, don’t start with the subject. Start with the background, then start to add in the details (the people, composition, framing, etc).
Another solution is to become a harsh self-critic. If all the parts of a photo doesn’t work (foreground, light, background, composition, content)
it doesn’t work. Sure you might have the most interesting subject in the world, but if your background doesn’t add to it– it isn’t a great photo.
The great photo is often in the details. For HCB’s timeless man jumping over the puddle photo, did you ever notice the poster of the ballerina jumping in the background? That is a great detail which makes a “good” photo “great.” Did HCB intend to have that in the background? Who knows, but the fact that he was able to edit out all his other bad shots made him a great photographer.
Think about the work of Alex Webb– he is able to cram a ton of content into a small rectangle, and yet use light and form to his advantage. There is no one spot of his frame which is left unfilled and lacking. How does he do this? He tells us, “Street photography is 99% failure.” That means we have to be utterly critical and hard on ourselves, and only show our best 1% (or even less) to the world.
Focus on quality over quantity. Don’t show every photo you snap from everyday. Wait on your images, and perhaps set an artificial limit to how many photos you show. It might be one photo a day, one photo a month, or even one photo a year.
4. Have a spirit of restlessness
Never become satisfied or complacent with your work. Always look for new opportunities– and how you can continue to grow and mature as a street photographer.
Know that your work will never be complete, and that you will never take a “perfect” photo or create a “perfect” project in your life.
By continuing to strive for perfection, we can continue to make better compositions, to better utilize light in our photos, and discover new ways of working.
Even a genre that is as old as street photography (since the beginning of photography)– there are new ways I see people working all the time. The use of off-camera flash, the use of complex layers, the use of complimentary colors, harsh shadows and light, uncanny subject matter, or unique ways of editing or presenting work.
Street photography is an evolving organism that becomes more complex over time– as more people push the boundaries of what the camera can do and produce. Are you going to be stuck in the dust shooting just the old style of photography that Henri Cartier-Bresson cultivated, or are you going to create something new?
The choice is yours.
I want to make it absolutely clear that in writing this, I don’t have any delusions that I am a master of street photography. Far from it. I have been shooting since I was 18 (I am 25 now) so I have around 7 solid years of shooting under my belt. I am still what the author refers to as “Step 2: The Apprenticeship Phase.” There are still many gaps in my knowledge in street photography and I am learning new things everyday. I simply write this as the takeaway points I have gotten from the book: “Mastery” and how myself (and you) can apply these concepts to further our work.
So as a summary, know that everyone in street photography starts somewhere.
We start in Step 1, just starting to know how to use our camera and the basics of photography.
As we discover that street photography is and that it is our passion, we move onto Step 2
where we start our apprenticeship and constantly experiment with different approaches.
Then once we have over 10 years of solid experience under our belt, we can strive towards Step 3
where we aim towards mastery in street photography. Then hopefully one day we can become immortal amongst the rank of Magnum photographers.
The road to mastery is a long and arduous one– but as long as street photography is your passion (and you are willing to put in the hard work), nothing stand in your way (but yourself).
So continue to learn, keep your mind open, and hustle on the streets– and one day you will become a master in street photography.
For continued learning, I recommend you to pick up “Mastery” by Robert Greene.